John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington
The TUC’s demonstration on 20 October has to be not simply the culmination but just the start of the autumn campaign against austerity.
The Coalition Government, and even some on the TUC’s General Council and Labour’s front bench, will want it to be the traditional TUC march – allow people to let off a bit of steam, feel they’ve had a good day out and go home on the coach to a cosy winter of inactivity in front of the television watching whatever diverting pap is served up to us.
Certainly the party conferences left nobody in any doubt that all main political parties were interested in was electoral politics. The focus was not what our people are going through now, but the parties’ positioning for a general election in 2015.
Both parties appeared to have the same strategy of focusing on winning the votes of the mythical “middle ground”. For Labour it’s still the “squeezed middle”. For the Tories it’s the “strivers.”
Ed Miliband’s portrayal of himself as the reincarnation of Benjamin Disraeli, and the renaming of “New Labour” as “One Nation Labour” seemed to forget that the virtues of One Nation Disraeli was extolling was a nation where everyone knew their place and accepted plebs would forever be ruled by aristos.
What “One Nation Labour” fails to comprehend is that our people are suffering now and suffering badly. They can’t wait for the electoral process to run its course. They can’t wait for a general election in 2015 in which the bulk of people will be ignored while the Tories and One Nation Labour fight it out for the mythical squeezed middle that inhabits some mythical middle ground.
I am struck virtually every day by how bad things are for many people in my community. On a busy shopping day earlier this month I was collecting at a supermarket for our local food bank. We set up the food bank because so many families in our area are struggling to survive on low wages, inadequate or no benefits. At least the food bank ensures they get a meal. What shocked me while I was collecting was how many people approached me embarrassed, desperate and upset to ask where they could get the food I was collecting because they were not able to manage to feed their kids properly.
In the last major recession in the 1980s one of the responses to the hardships and loss of hope caused by unemployment and poverty was despair. This resulted in an increase in suicides, especially among young men. The researcher Danny Dorling has published an excellent, detailed analysis of this tragic phenomenon affecting the lost generation of the Thatcher era. Evidence is now emerging that we are beginning to see the same impact in this recession. Over the last five months, at my local rail station, four young men have horrendously killed themselves by stepping in front of high speed trains.
At the same time each week reports come in of whole swathes of our welfare state being dismantled and sold off. The NHS is being cut and looted by privatisation on such a scale that there may not be much left by 2015. Education is being opened up to enable a free-for-all for providers to eventually privatise our schools and universities. Our system of social security that had the ambition that nobody should live in poverty, has now reverted to a stigmatising Poor Law style doling out of vouchers to the most needy in our society.
Waiting passively for the result of an uncertain election in 2015 is not an option. We need action now to halt austerity attacks on our people. That means supporting all those taking action to halt cuts.
We have seen amazing acts of creativity and courage by groups mobilising against the cuts and against injustices. Disabled People Against Cuts and Black Triangle have given fresh impetus to the disabled people’s movement. The Right to Work and the Boycott Workfare campaigns have exposed and often defeated the Government in its attempts to force through Workfare unopposed. UK Uncut continues to highlight the corruption of tax avoidance. Defend Council Housing has mobilised tenants in their fight to protect their homes. Squash has taken the fight against the criminalisation of squatting even to the doors of the homes of Tory ministers. NHS campaigns across the country have come together to resist closures and cut backs to their hospitals and health facilities. A new campaign has also now been launched to take direct action against energy companies profiteering while people freeze. And at long last the concept of a General Strike has been forced onto the TUC’s agenda.
Mobilising for a massive turnout on 20 October has been a priority, but following it we must plan our campaign of action, both direct action and industrial action. to protect and defend our people. Electoral politics is not enough as our people continue to suffer and our public services are looted.
John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and the Labour Representation Committee.